What Readings Would You Put on a 2016 Election Syllabus?

cowieProcess: A Blog for American History , a blog run by the Organization of American Historians, asked historians to tweet some book recommendations to help people understand the 2016 election.

What a great exercise!

Here are some of the books recommended by American historians:

Jefferson Cowie, Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class

David Roediger, Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class

Richard Hofstadter, The Paranoid Style in American Politics

Matthew Jacobson, Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race

George Packer, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America

Landon Storrs, The Second Red Scare and the Unmaking of the New Deal Left

W.E.B. Du Bous, Black Reconstruction in America

Christopher Lasch, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy

Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion

Daniel Rodgers, Age of Fracutre

Danielle Allen, Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship Since Brown v. Board of Education

Kevin Kruse, White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism

Thomas Sugrue, Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit


Read the entire list here.

Quote of the Day

From the editorial board of The New York Times:

The Carrier deal stands as an interesting argument against longstanding Republican economic orthodoxy.  In making the deal, Mr. Trump and Mr. Pence have embraced the idea that government does indeed have a role to play in the free market.  They intervened, and as a result, 800 people will keep their jobs.  If they applied the same interventionist approach to other labor issues–raising the minimum wage and expanding overtime pay come to mind–millions of working people might actually stand a chance.

The Unraveling of White Working-Class America


My maternal grandfather, a milkman, died 21 years ago today.

Over at The Wall Street Journal, journalists Bob Davis and Gary Fields have written a very interesting piece about the decline of working-class community in Reading, Pennsylvania. It is titled “In Places With Fraying Social Fabric, a Political Backlash Arises.”  This piece needs to be read alongside the Jedidiah Purdy piece that we posted on last week.  Populist voters are not just hillbillies and tea partiers, they are also members of the white ethnic working class–the children and grandchildren of immigrants who arrived in this country in the decades surrounding the turn of the 20th century.

Davis and Fields argue that “Donald Trump gets strong support where churches, civic groups and safety nets are in trouble.”  It is yet another version of the argument Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam made in his 2000 book Bowling Alone.

Here is a taste:

The buckling of social institutions fundamental to American civic life is deepening a sense of pessimism and disorientation, while adding fuel to this year’s rise of political populists like Donald Trump  and Bernie Sanders.

Here and across the U.S., key measures of civic engagement ranging from church attendance to civic-group membership to bowling-league participation to union activity are slipping. Unlocked doors have given way to anxiety about strangers. In Reading, tension between longtime white residents and Hispanic newcomers has added to the unease.

Read the entire piece here.

This makes perfect sense to me, although I can only speak anecdotally. I grew up in white working class America.  I am the son of a general contractor and a housewife.  I am the grandson of a milkman and a Teamster.  My extended family are (or were) plumbers, carpenters, police officers, linemen, mechanics, tavern-owners, beer distributors, backhoe operators, secretaries, and housewives.  My mother’s side of the family built our local volunteer fire company. Somewhere in my parents’ house is a box of bowling trophies I earned from the Saturday morning leagues I participated in as a kid.  We spent our Labor Days, Memorial Days, and July 4ths with one another–throwing horseshoes, playing softball, swimming in an above-ground pool, solving the problems of the world over hot dogs and beer, and going to parades and town carnivals that featured ferris wheels and other rides mounted on trucks.

It was a good childhood, although I now know that my parents shielded me, my brothers, and my sister from the hardships.  It was also a pretty white upbringing.  I think there were one or two African Americans in my graduating class.  I don’t remember any Latino classmates.  My elders were suspicious of newcomers who did not look like us. As a young boy this attitude was hard to ignore.  The real divisions in my community were class-based.  I lived in the older, more working-class part of town.  The other side of town was decidedly upper-middle class and professional.

The world of my childhood no longer exists.  Sure, some of my family still live in the North Jersey town where I grew up, but they will be the first to tell you that it is a very different place.  The working class community of my youth has been replaced by new housing developments–lots of so-called McMansions–filled with white collar immigrants from non-western countries.  (This is largely because the school system in my home town remains very strong).  The small Cape Cods and split-levels that still dot the landscape look like they are remnants of some strange universe that existed long ago.  Most of my extended family is gone.  My grandparents’ generation–the generation that helped build this town–has passed away.  Some of my parents’ generation is still around, but others have retired and moved elsewhere.  They probably feel the loss harder than anyone.

Most of my extended family–especially my parents and their siblings, siblings-in-laws, and friends are probably going to pull the lever for Trump in November for the same reasons that the people in Reading, Pennsylvania will be voting for Trump.  Some really like Trump.  Others are voting for him because they hate Hillary and especially hate Obama.  Many of them are Christians and thus believe that a vote for Trump will help them bring back (through Supreme Court nominations) the morality of the Christian nation that has been lost.  Or at least this is what they are told by their favorite conservative talk radio hosts.  But a vote for Trump, they believe, will also bring back jobs and in some small way restore the sense of community that they have lost.

The Author’s Corner with Matthew Pehl

The Making of a Working Class Religion.jpgMatthew Pehl is Assistant Professor of History at Augustana University. This interview is based on his new book, The Making of Working-Class Religion (University of Illinois Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write The Making of Working-Class Religion?

MP: I wanted to think about the history of work, and working people, from a perspective that lent itself to ethical interpretations, so I gravitated toward the role of religion in working peoples’ lives. Though I hadn’t read his works yet, I realize now that my thinking was similar to David Brion Davis, who examined slavery as a moral problem that confounded an era otherwise characterized by enlightenment and democratization. Similarly, I felt that the dislocations of the industrial working class presented a moral conundrum to a post-slavery society otherwise (theoretically) committed to equality. In addition to this general interest, I knew that I wanted to tell my story from the bottom-up. The world already has many fine books about well-educated ministers and their promotion of a “social gospel,” but I was pretty sure that these books did not tell us very much about the way religion was actually practiced and expressed by working-class people. Fortunately, I was able to find some remarkably rich and revealing primary sources relating to workers in Detroit. It was the existence of this source base that led me to turn my project into a case study. And once I did, I realized that there was a third reason to write this book: finding “working class religion” in Detroit meant pushing beyond our usual markers of denomination, ethnicity, and race. My book is largely the story of people who belonged to three groups—Catholics, African American Protestants, and evangelical white Protestants from the rural South—who were sometimes ill-at-ease with each other, but whose collective experiences should lead readers to reflect on the ways in which class shapes our experiences of, and expectations for, religion.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Making of Working-Class Religion?

MP: Religious consciousness and class are more similar and deeply linked than is often acknowledged, because both are socially invented identities that develop historically and find expression in cultural forms. However, the relationship between these two potent forces is hardly stable or predictable. In 20th century Detroit, the intermingling of religious and class identities led to both a surge of liberal, racially pluralist labor activism and a vigorous conservative backlash against modernism and pluralism.

JF: Why do we need to read The Making of Working-Class Religion?

The best reason to read a history book is see the past—and thus the present—in a new way. I hope that readers come away with two ideas stuck in their head.

First, religion is a multiverse, not a universe. I think that far too much of the discourse surrounding religion tries to cope with the immensity of the subject by reducing it to simple categories: “conservative” or “progressive,” “moderate” or “radical,” even “socially good” or “socially bad.” This is surely understandable when striving for clarity, but it seems fundamentally false to me. The religion that I discerned operating among Detroit’s working classes was deeply ambivalent. What I mean is that their religion took multiple ideas, emotions, desires, customs, and beliefs—including many that seemed in direct tension with each other—and reconciled them into identities that looked outwardly paradoxical but seemed nevertheless to provide internal cohesion. Religion was meaningful to many of these people not because it was clear and simple, but because it was ambivalent and complex. Moreover, while working people inherited generations-worth of religious idioms and traditions, their religious consciousness was not simply handed to them from clerical leaders: workers were agents in shaping religion for themselves.

Second, I would like people to think about work in moral and ethical terms. Our public discourse insistently, and falsely, reduces work to the purely economic. Yet, we all know that work does far more than merely provide an income: it shapes our social identity and, for many, gives us a sense of purpose, direction, and responsibility. These broader effects of work give shape to families, communities, and ultimately our politics. Is it any wonder, then, that the recent flurry of scholarship and journalism on the pain of the modern American working class discloses fractured families, desolate communities, and an inchoate sense of rootlessness and anger? My books does not offer any policy prescriptions, to be sure, but I hope that it illustrates the deeply human need for work infused with meaning, and the social dangers that come from denying it.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

MP: Like a lot of people, after I graduated from college, I felt myself at a crossroads, uncertain where to go or how to get there. While I was in this mental state, I randomly picked up a copy of J. Anthony Lukas’s book Big Trouble, an 800-page tome examining the assassination of Idaho ex-Governor Frank Stuenenberg and the subsequent trial of the Industrial Workers of the World leaders charged with the crime. I still don’t know what drew me to the book; it was totally unlike my usual reading material (which tended to me also anything but American history), yet reading it felt like a revelation. The idea that workers and employers in the U.S. had waged literal (if sporadic), decades long class war over issues of economic power startled me. Indeed, I immediately wondered why I was so ignorant of this history, and began to suspect that our collective “forgetting” of this past was not accidental. Big Trouble gave me a sense of rootedness, a concrete feeling that the world I inhabited actually came from somewhere and could be explained. Sparking this feeling remains my main goal as a teacher and writer.   

JF: What is your next project?

MP: I am just completing a small-scale project that examines second-wave feminism on the northern plains during the 1970s. I have a number of ideas about where to go next, but honestly I have had a hard time committing to a single project. I’ll make up my mind soon, though.

JF: Thanks, Matthew!

Understanding Trump Supporters

vanceJedidiah Purdy‘s piece at The New Republic, “Red-State Blues,” is one of the best things I have read on the world view of Donald Trump supporters.  The piece focuses on two important books on Trump country: Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (a National Book Award long-lister for non-fiction) and J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.

Here is a taste:

In Blue America, from Berkeley and Brooklyn to Durham and Austin, talking about Trump supporters has become an addiction that, like checking your phone, asserts itself in moments of weakness or inattention. Meals begin with promises that this time we will talk about something else. Then, faithful as a bad habit, conversation turns back to troubling questions: Who are these people? What are they thinking?

There’s plenty of cause for worry. Trump claimed the Republican presidential nomination on an identity politics of white, nominally Christian nativism that has not been so explicit in American politics for many decades. Even if his blustering, scattershot campaign flames out in November, as many have expected or hoped, it will be survived by the millions who supported him, many enthusiastically. If they continue to embrace some version of Trump’s nationalism, what will that mean for the shape of the political landscape? For the rest of us, accepting the right’s white identity politics as part of normal life, year in and year out, is a bleak prospect. So is treating perhaps a third of your fellow citizens as beyond the pale of normal politics. Anyone who is not a Trump enthusiast should hope that there is some other way to address his supporters, and for them to understand themselves.

Yet when liberals talk about Trump voters, they are often driven to conjecture and make-believe. The question, “Do you know anybody who is for Trump?” is answered by some variation on: “A few people I know on Facebook, some from high school; maybe my husband’s uncle, but we don’t really talk about it.” And then it’s back to, “Who are these people?” The conversations themselves are symptoms of a country whose political segregation runs through our neighborhoods, workplaces, and social media.

Arlie Russell Hochschild, an eminent left-liberal sociologist, and J.D. Vance, a Republican ex-marine and recent Yale Law School graduate with Appalachian roots, have thrown two rather different bridges over this divide. Hochschild, who lives in Berkeley, must have heard dozens of these tail-chasing conversations. Maybe it was their hermetic quality that inspired her new book, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, a combination of travelogue and sociological analysis that distills several years of visits to rural and small-town Louisiana. There, Hochschild gets to know Tea Party supporters, most of whom become Trump supporters by the end of her research, and works to understand the world view that organizes their politics.

Read the entire piece here.